Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Casarella, MD on September 03, 2022

If you’ve been through a crisis, you know it’s not always easy to get your life back to normal. You may feel anxious, angry, scared, or guilty. And you might have trouble with sleep, focus, or even become physically ill. A critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) can help you get better.

These sessions, often offered by a workplace or city, provide a chance to talk about the trauma with others who were involved. A CISD usually takes place within the first 3 days after the event and is open to people who were hurt, saw others hurt or killed, or served as first responders.

CISD is usually sponsored by a government agency. The agency will tell local businesses, churches, and community groups about it, so people know where and when to meet. CISD is typically open to anyone who was affected by the crisis.

Getting Help From CISD Groups

The CISD program has three goals:

  • Lessen the impact of a trauma
  • Help those involved recover
  • Find people who might need extra help

A normal session involves a small group talking about their shared experience with help from a trained leader. It sounds like -- but should not take the place of -- therapy. The group leaders are often counselors or experts in disaster response who are certified by the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA). Groups that lead CISD are typically members of either NOVA or National Volunteer Organizations Active in Disaster.

Most groups meet for less than 2 hours at a time, so you don’t get too overwhelmed. You may take a break and meet again later that day. The group typically meets several times over a few days.

The group usually sits together so you can share your experiences, but if someone needs to talk one-on-one, a leader can take them aside.

Group leaders will offer ways to manage the stress and help people understand their feelings and emotional reactions to the event. Participants are encouraged to describe details of the event from their own point of view and discuss their reactions. Leaders will also make sure that participants know what symptoms to watch for (such as nightmares or re-experiencing and reliving the event), and they'll ensure that group members have access to resources for ongoing support and help.

When you've made it through a crisis, it can help to talk with others who went through it too. With CISD, you can work your way through your feelings with the help of trauma experts as you get your life back to a new kind of normal.

Show Sources


American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress: " Providing Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) to Individuals and Communities in Situational Crisis."

Crisis Response Network of Orange County: "Stages if CISD."

Kristy Dyroff, director of communications, National Organization for Victim Assistance. "Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD)."

International Critical Incident Stress Foundation: "A Primer on Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM)."

United States Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration: "Critical Incident Stress Guide."

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